Portage Persistence

Portage Persistence

I have been trying for a couple years to capture a good aurora borealis photo in the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest, located just a few miles south of Girdwood, Alaska. I have always loved winter landscape photography in that valley.  It’s magnificent for sunrise photography in the winter because the sun rises right down the valley, allowing early light to hit the ridges on the north side of the valley and light up its features with pink alpenglow.  It is isolated enough from nearby artificial lighting sources to make it a great spot for nighttime photography.  Portage Creek stays open all winter, even when it is -20F outside, giving it an additional feature not readily available in other valleys. Plus, it is only a 45-minute drive from home, which is a bonus.

What makes Portage Valley great for winter landscape photography also makes it a prime location for capturing a dynamic landscape with the aurora borealis.  But it took me a few years to be in Portage Valley when the northern lights magic finally struck. The first time I went I captured a dim aurora that faded fairly quickly, leaving me to take a one-hour star trails photo that contained a dim glow of green aurora residue.  The next two times I went down specifically to capture the aurora borealis, I ended up instead with star trails photos and nothing else.  But in one of those cases, it produced a marvelous image showing the sky circling around the Northern Star. 

Then, in November of 2012, I was out there with a couple of other photographers after we captured some magnificent aurora over the Twentymile River Valley along Turnagain Arm.  While we did capture a nice aurora borealis display with some greens and vivid pinks, my picture did not turn out as I hoped because, unknown to me, my Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 AFS lens had been damaged when I dropped it the previous week, creating a distorting effect in the lens optics.  The result was an image that was sharp in the center, and out of focus and distorted around the edges.  While it is an interesting effect, it was still not what I hoped for.

Then, the Luck of the Irish finally came to my aid.  Joined by fellow photographers C.J. Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries in Kona, Hawai’i and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, California, we headed out on the evening of March 16 to try Portage Valley again. This time, we had more confidence due to a forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicating it would be a KP6-level event.  We arrived at the planned location and took our time setting up as there was not even a glow in the sky. As is good practice, we set up compositions and started to test exposures and focus.  A waxing crescent moon provided enough light to give the landscape detail without being too bright in the sky. After a while, we started to notice a deep purple hue showing up in the sky.  Soon, it had spread across the whole sky.  While not visible to the naked eye, the long exposures in the camera captured them.  As the purple built, I told the other photographers that early purple in the sky like that indicated it would be a strong aurora event.

Then, the purple started to fade as a dim green glow started to develop in the space of sky in between the peaks on the ridgeline before us. Building like a slow sunrise, the green rose to the summits of the peaks and then started to spread further skyward.  Then, the green turned into a chorus line, dancing in a line on the edge of the ridge to the west. The dance line then rose above the ridge and spread out into the sky, producing spikes and undulating curtains in greens with hints of red and pink.  After a while it calmed down, and we headed up to our cars to regroup and consider moving to another location.  It started to build up a little bit, so we headed back down to the creek, took some more photos and posed for a group picture.

When we had gone up to our cars, I placed my camera bag in the back of my car, leaving me with just my camera and a 24-70mm lens on a tripod.  During the mild buildup, I took just my camera and tripod down to the creek, leaving the bag (and my 14-24mm lens) behind.  Down at the creek, the show started to build a little bit more.  At one point, I was back on the road as we had again contemplated moving to another location.  Then, with little warning, the moderate show started to erupt.  I moved down the road a little bit to get a different vantage point, with the creek in the foreground right and a spruce tree in the middle.  Part of my decision in the position related to using the tree to cover CJ, Nick and Nolan who were down at the creek.  I didn’t want to have to spend the time to remove them later in Photoshop.

But the aurora display continued to build and build, making it too large and covering too much sky to capture with just a 24mm lens.  I internatlly debated for a while running back to my car to grab my bag and my 14-24mm lens, and ultimately knew I had to do it.  So, I took the time to stop shooting, sprint about 100 yards back to my car, grab my bag, and tell my nephew Daniel, who was sitting in the car watching the reboot of “V” on the iPad, to get out and watch this amazing show. I ran back to my where my tripod waited, pulled out the lens, removed its cap and promptly dropped it, lens face first, into the snow.  Loudly cursing while I frantically used my lens cloth to clean off the lens, I managed to afix the lens to my camera just in time to position for a vertical composition of a double question-mark shaped aurora curtain forming over the spruce tree in the middle. 

The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur, with all of us scrambling and changing to multiple locations to bring diversity to our compositions. A red aurora so bright it was visible to the naked eye pulsed over the south side of the valley, complimented by a split red-green corona. There were many exclamations of wonder and delight, I slightly fell into the creek after slipping on some ice (fortunately, my Baffin boots kept my feet warm and dry), and after a while, the dancing, undulating rainbow display of colors settled into a constant shimmering of white-green aurora.  When the craziness calmed down to this constant white-green overhead wash, we posed for another group photo, this time with a background sky completely full of aurora.  I took another portrait of Daniel under this brilliant sky.  By 3:00 a.m., we decided it was time to go out and explore more photo opportunities on the Turnagain Arm.

More photos from this night and other northern lights adventures can be found and purchased in my Aurora Borealis gallery.


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